Tag Archives: Dostoyevsky

What is January 6th? (Reposted from 2014)

9 Jan

This is a question, or comes as part of misguided well-wishing, that I get at this time of the year when people find out I’m Orthodox.  “Your Christmas is January 6th, right?”  “Epiphany?  What’s Epiphany?”  “That’s right!  Three Kings’ Day?!”  “But Russian Christmas is January 6th, right?”  “Is that what they call ‘little Christmas’?”  And the thing is that this is one of those questions that people aren’t really interested in hearing the entire answer to because it’s so complicated, and you see their eyes start glazing over just as you’ve started to explain, so I usually mumble “uh-huh” or something and change the topic.  So let this post be my official statement on the issue that people can refer to when they want to know what the deal is, or on those nights when the Ambien isn’t working.

Once upon a time, Julius Caesar created a calendar.  Well, even if it wasn’t Caesar himself but his astronomers, it was known as the Julian calendar and it was what the entire Christian world used until the sixteenth century.  That’s when Western astronomers — during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII — who were smarter than Caesar’s astronomers, realized that the calendar we were all using was off, vis-à-vis certain fixed astronomical events like solstices and equinoxes, and especially the all-important Vernal Equinox* by which the date of Easter is calculated: that it had drifted back some ten days over the centuries, meaning the day that was actually March 20th, let’s say, had slipped back to the day we were calling March 10th at the time.  So they came up with a new calendar that was more accurate, called Gregorian, like the Pope.  They just skipped the errant ten days.  And one fine evening of March 10th, let’s say, Christians the world over went to bed and when they woke up it wasn’t March 11th but March 21st.  With me so far?

After some fuss, Western Christians accepted the new calendar.  The hyper-traditional Russian Orthodox Church and the rest of the Orthodox Churches, which were mostly part of Muslim states at the time, kept the Old/Julian Calendar, till the early twentieth-century when the Greek and Romanian churches adopted the New/Gregorian Calendar, while the other ones (and the monastic communities of Mount Athos) continued and continue using the Julian Calendar.  One of several critical points: since the sixteenth-century change the discrepancy has grown so that the Julian Calendar is now thirteen days behind the astronomically correct Gregorian Calendar.

So, Christmas?  Well, Russians celebrate Christmas on what the West calls January 7th.  Mind you, their church calendars say December 25th when ours say January 7th, so they don’t really celebrate it on January 7th.  It’s just January 7th to us.  Though, actually, if you ask a Serb or a Russian when, for example, St. Nicholas’ Day is, they’ll say December 19th — meaning on our current, modern Gregorian calendar — though on their church books it’s still December 6th, when the West and Greeks and Romanians celebrate it.  The key point is that on the Old/Julian Calendar everything is thirteen days later.

gregory xiiiPope Gregory XIII (click)

I generally find this calendar difference to be a nuisance, one of the negatives of the decentralized structure of the Orthodox Church, mostly because you get vacation at all the wrong times and have to ask for days off, but also because, despite the often scathing condescension I feel for most of Western Christianity, I am an oecumenist at heart.  And it’s unpleasant to celebrate Christmas on a different day than other Orthodox Christians or even Easter on a different date than the West.  On the other hand, sometimes it’s nice.  It’s nice to celebrate Easter without the cheap plastic crap of Easter Bunnies and parades all around.  And it’s nice to get to drop into church in early January when the late December craziness of Christmas in this country — no matter how hard one has tried to stay out of it — has made it impossible for you to even light a simple candle for the holiday. Convenient, in a sense, as well; if I can’t get to a Greek church on August 15th, for example, for the Dormition of the Virgin, (or here) I can always go to a Russian one on August 28th.  But generally, I think it’s the dumbest kind of traditionalism to stick to the Old Calendar.  I mean, even if we’re so literal-minded as to think that we know when Christ was born — or even so literal-minded as to think He actually existed — we now know, scientifically, that the day we were calling December 25th is not December 25th.  So what’s the problem?  Russians, of course, make off like bandits with this deal.  Communism made New Year the most important holiday of the year, but even then everyone still celebrated Old New Year on January 13th.  Now festivities in post-communist Russia start around Western Christmas, go through New Year’s, celebrate Russian Christmas proper on January 7th, and still celebrate Old New Year on January 13th — a month of more than the usual everybody-being-plastered.

Easter?  Oh, Easter.  Why do Greeks celebrate Christmas with the West but Easter with other Orthodox Churches?  Again, a result of the decentralized structure of Orthodoxy.  The Greek Church switched to the Gregorian calendar for everything else, but, due to the fundamental centrality of Easter and the Easter cycle (Lent-Easter-Pentecost) to the faith (something the West has quite seriously lost sight of), it was decided that Greeks and Romanians would continue to calculate the date of Easter according to the Julian Calendar in order to stay in step with the others and maintain Orthodox solidarity.

“But what about January 6th then??!!” you ask, desperately seeking Christian truth.  January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany.  I repeat: January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany.  The Богоявление in Church Slavonic, Bogojavljenje — The “God Revelation,” literally, or also colloquially called Jordaninden in some South Slav languages: “Jordan Day.”  Er, like the river, right?  That’s right.  It’s the day Jesus Christ was baptized in the river Jordan by his cousin John the Baptist and the beginning of Christ’s ministry.  But this happened when Christ was 30.  He was baptized on January 6th, thus the Twelve Days of Christmas, but it was January 6th thirty years later; it’s purely coincidental that they come so close to each other, but understandable that Christian observance would lump them together into one holiday season.**  But Epiphany is not a holiday thematically related to Christmas or Christ’s birth; it’s not part of the first few weeks of His life.  It’s also purely coincidental that Epiphany comes twelve days after Christmas and that the Old and New Calendars diverge by thirteen days.  But that’s the reason people have heard of something about January 6th and think “Russian Christmas” is January 6th.  It’s not.  It’s the 7th.  January 6th is Russian Christmas Eve.  And that means Russian Epiphany is…..?  Have you been paying attention?  Very good.  January 19th.  Thirteen days later.  Though, again, Russian and Serbian and Bulgarian Churches are celebrating it on what — for them — is January 6th.

The Epiphany is one of the Great Feasts of the Church and of great theological significance, which is really why I get so worked up about this issue.  It’s not just the day Christ was baptized in the Jordan by his cousin John the Baptist.  At the moment of His baptism, the Holy Spirit descended from heaven in the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father was heard saying: Οὗτός ἐστιν υἱός μου ἀγαπητός, ἐν εὐδόκησα.” “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  Thus, it’s the first time that the Trinity was revealed to mankind in all three of its forms at once.  That’s what Epiphany, or Theophany, as it’s also known, (Επιφάνεια or Θεοφάνεια) mean: the “showing” or “revelation” of God — in all His forms.  It was also my father’s nameday (“Fotios,” like “photo” for light — the day is often colloquially known as “The Lights” in Greek) and an important holiday in his village.

Baptism_(Kirillo-Belozersk)Russian icon of the Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus Christ (click)

And the Three Kings?  Three Kings’ Day is an abomination whose prohibition I will begin to work towards as soon as I am elected to the College of Cardinals.  Honestly, sorry to be so churlish and ruin the fun of hundreds of millions of little Hispanic kids, but I genuinely find the observance to be more than mildly offensive.  I don’t care that it doesn’t make any sense textually – that the gospels are clear that within days of His birth Mary and Joseph had whisked Christ off to safety in Egypt and that they weren’t sitting around in the cold for almost two weeks waiting for these “kings” to come.  (Though it’s cool that these “kings” were likely Zoroastrian priests from Iran — searching for something they had heard would happen towards the West around the Winter Solstice — Yalda).  I just think it’s the Catholic Church at its cheapest, most propagandistic worst to let a holiday of such theological importance degenerate into a by-product of Franciscan Christ-Child piety (like most of Christmas in the West anyway) and to officially condone this sentimental tripe about frankincense and myrrh, while the real meaning of the holiday is completely forgotten, as if believers are incapable of understanding the real theology behind the day.  It’s the Catholic Church at its Grand Inquisitor worst, actually — and there I’m with Dostoyevsky: give ’em a show and a nice little parade and keep their loyalty and submission; they’re too stupid to get the deep stuff anyway and you’ll only risk confusing them and then, enraged, they’ll turn on you: “Ecco homo….Ἰδοὺ ὁ ἄνθρωπος.”  It’s one of the many ways that Rome still seems to be incapable of finding a way between the most ruthless authoritarianism and the cheapest populism.  Though that, of course, was exactly Dostoyevsky’s point: that the two work hand-in-hand.

Which is why, aside from its incredible power as a scene in and of itself, I find the segment from Twelve Years a Slave I posted at top to be immensely gratifying; a slave at least knew that “John” and “baptism in the Jordan” had something to do with “Three” — and not three kings

blessing-of-the-waters

In seaside parts of Greece, the “blessing of the waters” is performed, where the priest throws a cross into the sea and young men dive in to retrieve it.

A few years ago, the Turkish government permitted Greeks in İstanbul to perform the rite again, though for the Patriarch to do so at the Fanari on the Golden Horn, they generally have to call out Turkish commandos to protect the participants from the Çarşamba*** crazies from up the hill.

Oh, and just to add to the confusion, early Christians actually did celebrate the Nativity of Christ on January 6th, but the Church moved it to the 25th of December at some point so they could get a piece of the Saturnalia and Mithra-Birthday celebration market.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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* Easter is the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Vernal Equinox, thus, the first Sunday after the first Full Moon, 14-15 of Nissan — the first night of Passover — in the Jewish Calendar…I think.  In short, the first Sunday after the first night of Passover, one more indication that the New calendar is the more correct way to calculate and number things.

** On the Old Julian Calendar Easter often came so early that Carnival began in late January, thus Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, was considered the beginning of Carnival — one long wintery festival season from Christmas to Ash Wednesday.  This is why Shakespeare’s play, which has nothing to do with the Epiphany, was called “Twelfth Night” — because it was a comedy commissioned for the beginning of Carnival.  For some reason, in the more Slavic, — yes, I said it: S-L-A-V-I-C — parts of northwestern Greece, like Lerin or Kostur, serious Carnival time is early January, and includes elements much like what we know of the Roman Saturnalia, and not the pre-Lenten season that it is elsewhere.  And he have evidence that the Byzantines celebrated a similar, Roman-Saturnalia-derived extended festive time throughout the winter.

Oh…  But what’s Carnival?  And Lent?  Ash Wednesday?  Oooofff….other posts…

*** Çarşamba is a hyper-religious — yes, I’ll just call it fundamentalist — mahalla, up the hill from the Fanari, the once entirely Greek neighborhood on the northern shore of the Old City where the Patriarchate is located.  It’s the only part of İstanbul I — and not a few İstanbullus themselves — genuinely feel uncomfortable being in or walking through, and occasional bits of fun like Molotovs tossed into the Patriarchate’s compound usually come from these lovely black-clad, bearded neighbors of ours.

Belgrade: Wimbledon 2014, rakia with M., and what’s with me and all the Djoković…

12 Jul

TENNIS-GBR-WIMBLEDONGetty Images (click)

“What’s with you and all the Djoković?”

This is M. in Belgrade, after the sixth or seventh rakia, giving me a hard time about my Nole cult. M. is an old Serbian student of mine from New York. He’s one of my favorites actually; out of the nearly ten years I taught English at CUNY, he’s one of those special ones that I can count on one hand. Funny, charismatic, super-smart – when he came to class – he was a real asset to have.

“I was your best student,” he says, a propos of nothing and with characteristic modesty.

“Yeah, when you came to class,” I say.

We live ten minutes from each other in New York but never see each other – bumped into each other at some bars a couple of times – except that every year at Orthodox Easter he comes to my house. But I haven’t been home for Easter for the past three years, so we didn’t see each other then either. Except for one night, two nights ago, the stars arranged for us to both be in Belgrade together and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get some long-due drinking done.

So this is M. getting all up in my face Serbian style:

“If you’re such a fan, why are you here? Why aren’t you in Montenegro at his wedding trying to get a picture?”

I didn’t even know Djoković was getting married this weekend and M. knows I’m too old and probably knows enough else about me to know I’m not some idiot groupie:

“Like the other groupies…” he says nevertheless. “You could try to take a picture of him with the bride…one with the bride alone…one with…”

The thing is his teasing is so good humored it makes you wanna jump right into the ring with him and take him on, so it’s always fun and it only makes you like him more. I also came away from the evening feeling good because M. and I barely know each other actually, but a bunch of his friends showed up and it was obvious how loved he was by all of them and that was nice to see; I like when my instincts about a person are correct even when I don’t have much evidence to go by.  But he’s relentless…

“You could try to get a picture of the dog…”

Well for M. or anybody, if you still don’t know what my Djoković thing is about and how it relates to my Serb thing and how possessive and defensive I get about both, you haven’t been reading my blog very regularly. So let me try again. Back to Wimbledon…

I don’t think any real tennis aficionado could’ve asked for a better Wimbledon 2014 – unless you have the frankly hilarious misfortune of being a Nadal fan, in which case you deserve your fate and I’ll tell you when it’s ok to come out of your room and stop being embarrassed. For Djoković it was no easy climb. Great tennis all the way, but he wasn’t granted anything. With Čilić, with Raonić, with Dimitrov, there was practically not a single give-away. He had to wrestle every point from the hands of the universe.

Of course the finals match between him and Federer was a friggin’ dream. It was everything you want from good tennis, from good sport, competition, art, or a good war even: matched skill and guts, intelligent tactics, constant reversal and coming back from behind – and the masochistic pleasure or knowing that even if your guy loses, he’ll have lost to someone you respect. This was one of those matches that the phrase “toe-to-toe” was invented for. At no single point during the more than three hours did either man have enough of a numerical lead to allow his supporters to relax for a few minutes. Neither of them was ever more than just one step ahead of the other and that never lasted long enough for you to take even half a breath.

I watched the game in an empty Greek bar with a friend of mine and don’t think I actually sat back on my seat for a second. And I don’t know whether it was the emptiness of a bar in suburban Athens, perhaps, on a hot July, Sunday afternoon — the hours of high summer heat in Attica still turn the city into a desert — but this was the first time that Djoković’ loneliness on the court struck me so hard. Existentially.  How completely lonely he sometimes seems.  Of course, that day, Wimbledon had to do with it as well. For a variety of reasons we all know, Novak’s always been considered the kind of odd man out in the tennis world despite his stupendous capabilities as an athlete, and Wimbledon is clearly the most classist of all tennis venues where that would show up in its starkest form. I don’t know if it was the shots that the Greek network we were watching was being fed, but not once during the whole match, were the cameras able to get even a single shot of the crowd looking satisfied or anything but stressed whenever an exchange went well for Nole; except occasionally from Becker and his team; no one from his family even seemed to be there — getting ready for the wedding circus I can now presume, but didn’t know at the time. Unlike the always cool French, who’ll applaud you for your art no matter who you are or where you’re from, like the standing ovation they gave Djok for his battle against the Catalan that left him in tears at Roland Garros, here there was the unmistakable look of British and other jet-set spectators at a sporting event in the grip of pure class terror: that their suave Swiss aristocrat would lose to this Balkan nut-job…and at Wimbledon.

I remembered that shitty little article by Lauren Collins that The New Yorker had run last September — The Third Man — about Novak, which kept essentially asking whether he can learn how to act like a proper tennis player: “Can he make us like him?” Like you guys are the arbiters of what exactly and he needs your liking?  And all my pro-Serb and pro-Nole nerves got twisted into knots again, like when I had first read it. The whole article was just dripping with condescension and I thought to myself that if Collins had written an article like that about an athlete from a “country of color,” The New Yorker would have been faced with a howling riot of censoring anger and cries of racism. “Is Nole too ghetto for Wimbledon?” Collins had essentially wanted to know. She could’ve consulted me and I would’ve come up with at least twenty terms from half a dozen Balkan languages for “ghetto” that she could have used.

Then the fifth set started and it became clear that both men knew this was it, life or death, especially because it started to become clear that physical and – from the tightness of the game and competition – nervous exhaustion had started to set in. And Nole got that look he gets late in matches, where he alternates between a look of steely professionalism and hunger that’s ready to rip his opponent to shreds, and this strange watery-eyed look of almost spiritual exaltation, looking dreamily skyward, or gazing down at the ground blankly. And this latter look, though beautiful, is a little worrisome because it means he’s either going to start playing like a man possessed by some god and steamroll whoever he’s up against into the ground – or just start f*cking up and making a royal mess of everything.

It became clear that he was in a state of deity-possession almost as soon as the set started. And then he stopped looking lonely to me. Instead we was simply magnificently alone, the akritas fighting it out on the marble threshing-floor, the young kraljević single-handedly taking on the hostile hordes of pink frangoi in their sun-screen and appropriate hats.

NOLEUSE1404667649000-AFP-531415517Glyn Kirk, AFP/Getty Images (click)

And Federer hit the ball into the net and it was all over. And Nole cracked open; not up, open — like the cracks that Leonard Cohen says let the light get in, except the light here was not flooding in but out of him in this great luminous glow. I don’t know what mad idea of redemption or humility or gratitude was going through his crazed Slavic mind when he knelt and started eating the grass off the court, but in the back of my mind I could hear some Serbian Sonya Marmeladova crying:

“This is what you shall do! Go at once, this very moment to the crossroads and kiss the earth which you have defiled and bow down to the world and say: ‘I am grateful. I am humble. I am grateful. I am humble.’”

And then the tears of that gratitude and humility started flowing and I haven’t even wanted to watch any of the post-game interviews or read anything; I just want to be left with that image of him holding the cup and bawling. Weeping copiously.  Like a man.

wimbledon-men-novak-djokovic-wimbledon-trophy_3169070Getty images (click)

My sense here in Serbia is that there’s a little bit of a conflict between Djoković’ status as saintly national hero and the celebrity circus that’s constantly flowing around him, and that that’s what M.’s cynicism was about with the wedding and all. But a girl, I., who was in M.’s kompaniya that night: very smart and pretty, who speaks absolutely native-speaker American English and who is always running what’s apparently one of Serbia’s fastest-growing websites from from her IPad – which she was doing that night – while still managing to remain front and center of any conversation she happens to find herself in, says that’s the girlfriend and the media’s fault, not his, and that it really irks her.

“What does ‘irk’ mean, M.?” I decide to play professor with him, addressing him by his last name.

“It means like when something bother-… What do you mean what does it mean?!  I know what it means.  I was your best student!”

“Yeah. When you came to class.”

I. also talked some about some genuine darkness that was part of Nole’s childhood, the details of which are common knowledge here, but I’m not going to get into because it’s part of this blog’s journalistic policy not to go there with cheaply personal and especially hurtful personal issues, and especially not with someone I love and admire and who’s as much of a hero of mine as Djoković is. But let’s just say the redeeming, protecting hero archetype is a structurally core part of his psyche.

“He’s a beautiful man and he has a beautiful soul,” I. declared, definitively ending that conversation, as I imagine she must definitively end others when she wants to.

And I felt vindicated.

Do you have your answer now, M.?

Out of respect for this spectacular victory and the Djoković-and-tennis tolerance of my readers I promise there will be no Djoković or tennis at all until the U.S. Open.

But see you before then.

Djokunnamed

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Note:  Speaking of “marble threshing-floors…”  The court at Wimbledon is in such shit state that it can only be called a grass court in the most ideally Platonic terms.  Really; cute British shabbiness has its limits.  Beer and probably piss-stained pub carpeting is one thing.  A court where most of the playing is done on parched, packed, rock-hard dirt, made that much more treacherous by the fine layer of sand it kicks up and coats itself with, is another.  It definitely put a cramp on both players’ styles at several moments during the match and there were times where it even looked like it could cause dangerous injury.  With Nole I didn’t know whether his super-human flexibility would protect him or if it would make his propensity for taking acrobatic risks that much more risky.  Either way, do something.  It’s one of those things that’s not charming about England anymore.

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